political theory in political science?

Question for higher education researchers and Kieran: Why is political science the only social science field to have an institutionalized sub-field of ethics inside of it?

If you look around the American academy, you’ll quickly see that the analogous sub-fields do not exist. Economics banished history of economic thought/philosophy/ethics some time ago as the field formalized. There are definitely normative discussions in economics, but there isn’t a large sub-field of “economic ethics” that commands dissertations, FTEs, or endowed chairs. In sociology, we sort of had that stuff up until the early 1990s but it’s disappeared in the major journals (e.g., articles of the form “a new reading of Weber” are very, very rare). My sense is that anthropology and psychology don’t have a a political theory analog.

What mechanisms allow political science to keep this structure? Why hasn’t political theory completely migrated to philosophy departments or history programs that emphasize intellectual history?

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Written by fabiorojas

July 20, 2012 at 12:09 am

9 Responses

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  1. Note to self: come post here next week…


    Jacob T. Levy

    July 20, 2012 at 1:17 am

  2. The first class I had in criminal justice at my community college (2005) was “Ethics for Criminal Justice.” We studied the major theories – formalism, absolutism, deonotology, relativism, etc. – and applied them to problems in criminal justice. In my last semester completing my master’s (2010), I had “Ethics in Physics.” I tied that back to law enforcement, criminology, and wrongful convictions. I have delivered presentations on fraud in scientific research and junk science in the courtroom. I suggested to young people interested ins science and law enforcement that rather than chasing the CSI Chimera, they seek out the offices of research integrity at every university and many government agencies, such as Health and Human Services. My education was at Eastern Michigan University, a midrange, midwestern state school, perhaps so mainstream that it is insulated from what “most” other schools do.


    Michael Marotta

    July 20, 2012 at 3:07 am

  3. Can it be that the study of politics, among other things, also includes the choices and decisions -in other words, problems and solutions. Of course, it can be said for social philosophy and then sociology, or even social sciences in general. But, of all these prescriptions and supposed solutions, I think all involve crucial decisions concerning power among people. And that’s exactly the territority of politics. Political theory in a sense complements the other ‘scientific sounding’/behavioural political science. Its nature necessitates a strong normative domain.

    That was a rather theoretical guess, which cannot say about academic/institutional structure.



    July 20, 2012 at 3:37 am

  4. I’ve noticed something like this in political science – especially International Relations as well. Intl. Relations has ALOT of building up of the edifice of abstract theory, etc.



    Andrew B. Lee

    July 20, 2012 at 7:51 am

  5. emre: My question is about political theory, it is more about why it is inside political science rather than being moved to another discipline like philosophy or intellectual history. That has happened in nearly every other social science discipline.



    July 20, 2012 at 6:14 pm

  6. It has a lot to do with the organization of the discipline. Most graduate students in Sociology, as example, sit through a course or three in sociological theory, and deploy some version of it in their published papers. In job searches and tenure cases, oh so many sociologists are prepared to offer opinions about what comprises good theoretical work. In contrast, large political science departments are more likely to be governed by distinct subfield groups. Theory, American, Comparative and International Relations are the big ones, but some departments also include public policy, public law, and/or methodology. This governance structure allows each subfield to develop independently from the others, generally diverging from a central core, and it allows normative theory to survive–and develop–within the department–and the discipline.


    David S. Meyer

    July 20, 2012 at 9:02 pm

  7. I have sometimes wondered about this too. Just anecdotally, after studying political theory a bit in the 1980s/90s, I recall the ‘revival’ of normative theory from the time having a lot to do with Rawls just expanding into a point of reference not only for political philosophy but for political theory as well, so that there was a generation of scholars arguing over feminist, communitarian, Marxist, and other sorts of critiques of Rawls. Up until A Theory of Justice, if I recall correctly, normative theory had been somewhat marginalized by empirical (democratic) theory and related branches of study, and perhaps this would have continued apace if there hadn’t been a major contemporary work like ToJ (as well as the books produced partly in response to ToJ) around, useful for teaching undergraduates and graduates alike. On the other hand, the classics always seemed to have a place, and there was always a steady supply of IR students, in particular, who had to study the early moderns like Hobbes.



    July 21, 2012 at 12:09 am

  8. Excellent question – I can say most about economics, because I studied economics and philosophy and wondered about this all the time. I think one aspect is the self-image of the discipline: economists just *really* would like to be like the guys in the physics departments who do *real* science: who can prove things with numbers, and make predictions, and so on. That creates a climate that is very hostile towards anything that looks remotely like belonging to the humanities or cultural studies. I think that this self-understanding is rather problematic, but that made me a minority there, and I’ve seen a couple of cases where people opted out of economics because they felt that something was missing if all was mathematics – so there is a self-selection process going on as well. Secondly, and relatedly, in institutional terms, history of economic thought, philosophy of economics, economic ethics, etc. did not manage to be seen as part of the mainstream, and as part of what needs to be taught in a good department. I’m not quite sure how exactly this happened, but these disciplines ended up with their on (marginalized) societies, journals, conferences, etc., and no one who considers himself a *real* economist would ever go there. The same holds for a number of heterodox schools. One of the most important mechanisms of exclusion seems to be what kind of papers, in what kind of journals, give you CV points when you are a young researcher – this is an extremely strong pull towards certain methods and topics of research. Thirdly, one might wonder why issues about the “philosophical” side of economics were not raised in other disciplines. In part, this has happened – philosophy of science includes philosophy of social science, and hence of economics. Where it has happened very little (but hopefully it will become more) is in political philosophy and ethics, as result of a number of developments in these disciplines themselves, including the strong tendency to develop “ideal” theories that are so abstract that muddy questions of how exactly to spell out theorems of justice when it comes to concrete questions of economic policy have often been neglected.
    So why hasn’t this happened with political theory? It’s complex, but I guess in part the tendencies you had in economics just weren’t so strong in political science (as of now). And maybe the fact that there is a certain interest in the public in questions of political theory, and in the intellectual traditions that shaped the political institutions we have today, has also helped to give political theory some credit. Let’s hope that it stays that way!


    Lisa Herzog

    July 27, 2012 at 8:11 am

  9. The very same question was raised by Penn State as it tried to justify closing down its political theory sub-field. I can offer some reflection based on the disciplinary history of political science and its internal structure. There must be others reasons and also different versions of the basic points made here.

    A number of political theorists argue that the discipline of political theory is of recent provenance just like political science itself. It is not simply a continuation of the 2500 year old tradition going back to Plato/Socrates (some would include the pre-Socratics but, oh well…) but it is also reflective of and institutionalizes the rift between those who think that the study of politics must be put on a scientific footing and those who think its humanistic aspect is essential and the scientific footing doomed to being perennially shaky. Of course, this contention is a common story across all the social science disciplines and I do not know the specific history of how it was institutionalized in political science and not the other fields. But I don’t think the answer is that only students of politics deal with essentially normative concepts (power, equality, justice, etc). These concepts are common or should be common to all approaches to the study of collective human existence.

    A very important element of the institutionalization story is that political science is a relatively more fragmented and pluralistic discipline with a weaker disciplinary identity. This is not limited to the divide between political theory and science but also applies to the various sub-fields that are in their own specific ways committed to being scientific rather than humanistic. I think this is the more immediate and functional explanation for how political theory continues to thrive while its analogs no longer exist in economics, sociology, etc.

    Not only is the disciplinary identity of political science relatively weak but there is also a recognition of the difference between the subject matter or domain – “politics” – and the discipline of its study as the latter is currently organized. In other words, there is some awareness that politics and political science are not the same thing. The discipline has not completely colonized its domain of study and imposed its own identity upon it to the extent that, say, has happened with economics. This allows a considerably greater room for the sort of self-reflective philosophical questions that are in fact addressed in political theory.

    The above point would suggest that there is a kind of functional division of labor, so to speak, between political theory and science but I must immediately add that it does not imply the sort of interdependence that an actual functional division of labor does. The one thing I can say for sure based on my continuing grad school experience is that political science, or, to be more precise, the other sub-fields as they currently exist, do not somehow “need” political theory. No seminar in political theory is mandatory and I have never encountered a single comparativist or Americanist or IR grad student in my political theory seminars. Oh wait, there was one Americanist in my philosophy of social science class which was listed as a political theory seminar. It might be slightly different in other political science departments but I expect not much.


    Moni Talukdar

    August 12, 2012 at 2:21 am

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